Monday, September 14, 2009

Fun with Volcanoes

This last weekend was action-packed! First, I traveled with my class to Riobamba and stayed at an indigenous community's hostal, Achiknan, where they are trying to embrace eco-tourism as an alternative to agriculture and cattle raising on the arid paramo (highland plains). The people were so kind and worked hard to feed and provide for thirty people. They played music for us with charanga (small guitar made from an armadillo shell, kinda like a mandolin), guitar and flutes while the women sang. One of the women grabbed one of our professors, Esteban, and began dancing, hands behind their backs and little steps back and forth. They were very understanding of our questions and tried to explain the best they could in Quichua, which was then translated into Spanish, and then again into English. The next morning, after a satisfying breakfast of fried bread with jam, coffee and eggs, we drove to the refuge of Chimborazo, Ecuador's tallest volcano. Because it is merely one degree south of the equator, and due to the shape of the globe, it is the world's closest point to the sun. It's peak reaches 6257 meters high and although we didn't hike to the glacier, we trekked a few miles along a ridge and explored a cave which is used as a temple for local indigenous tribesmen. Inside were gifts of flowers, money, food, wine, and even the badge of a policemen from Quito. We were told of myths about a condor and a toad and a cowboy searching for bulls near the glacier who, when he didn't ask permission from the gods, was turned into a stone pillar near the top of the peak. Our hike lasted most of the day, as we had to hike slowly and breathe deeply so as not to faint from lack of oxygen. At our highest point, we were around 15,500 feet high in elevation. We hiked down to a lodge owned by a man who had once been Ecuador's finest mountaineer, where we hungrily gobbled our almuerzo. Then, without showers, we were rushed to the satellite campus in Riobamba where we met with students learning English and visited with them for an hour. The four students I spoke with were all about 14 years old and very formal. They were interested in learning English in order to travel and go to a university. I am often jealous that schools in the United States don't require a second language course until so late in education. These kids were so advanced for how long they had been studying, and all seemed to take it so seriously. Later we checked into our hotel in Riobamba and were finally granted showers with hot water, crappy movies in Spanish, and beds that weren't bunks. Saturday we split up, as some of the students were returning to Quito while the rest of us had made reservations at a hostal named The Secret Garden, about an hour outside Machachi. Some of us piled into the back of a little pickup truck, along with our backpacks, and rode along the jerky road, all dry and loose, taking in the countryside. The hostal has only been open for about two years, by a family (he's Australian and she's Ecuadorian). It provided an incredible view of Cotopaxi, which means "throat of the moon,"and is Ecuador's highest active volcano at 5,897 meters. We enjoyed a hike up a dried riverbed that afternoon and saw some waterfalls, and played with the numerous dogs that are actually pets of the hostal. The next morning, after breakfast, we rode to the national park and parked at the trailhead. I say 'trailhead' because that's what most of us would consider what we hiked. In reality, it was an extremely steep hill of scree and gravel with high winds. All types of people were attempting to reach the glacier of Cotopaxi: we students in North Face coats and llama wool gloves, families in jeans and sneakers with little ones bundled up, only their eyes and noses showing, experienced mountaineers decked out in snowsuits with crampons, snowshoes, pick axes and more dangling from their packs, and even a crazed looking tourist swigging whiskey (he didn't make it too far before sitting down for a long spell and then reluctantly returning to the parking lot). We all paced ourselves as best we could, stopping to catch our strained breaths and taking pictures of the incredible panarama. About halfway between the parking lot and the peak is a lodge, which sells hot cocoa and postcards. After a warm drink, some of us headed further up, to reach the glacier and took pictures of the ice formations and the landscape below, which seemed more like a painting. After descending to the vehicles, and then returning to the hostal, we ate dinner in some kind of oxygen-deprived stupor and packed up to head home. What an amazing time with the volcanoes, paramo, llamas, and friends we made along the way!